In Siberia, 3000 kilometers from Moscow lies the Siberian Chemical Combine. This facility was part of the Russian nuclear program since the beginning of the Cold War. After almost 40 years of producing weapons grade nuclear material, the reactors were shut down and the facility now serves as a storage site for radioactive material and a uranium enrichment facility. In 1993 an explosion occurred at the facility contaminating almost 120 kilometer2 of the surrounding province of Tomsk.
For the first time in the accident plagued history of the Soviet/Russian nuclear program, the Russian Government notified the public of the incident. However, the cult of nuclear secrecy that permeated the Soviet Union seems to be re-emerging in the Russian Federation. Government agencies were embroiled in conflict over how much information should be released. The information that was not given, the environmental state of the combine and the Russian Government’s intent to sell nuclear technology gives cause for concern to the entire.
Siberia, 3000 kilometers east of Moscow in Russia, a city stands dedicated to the former Soviet Unionюs nuclear program. Now known as Seversk, during the Cold War Tomsk-7 was one of over a dozen secret nuclear cities. Tomsk-7 was home to the Siberian Chemical Combine (SCC).
The Combines five reactors came on line between 1955-1967 and were similar to the RBMK reactors at Chernobyl. They are slightly larger than the reactors at the Mayak Chemical Combine in Chelyabinsk, a region known as the most polluted place on Earth. The 192 km2 city was built to house the 107,000 workers and families of the SCC. It was situated 15 km north west of the city of Tomsk with a population of 500,000. The SCC sits on the River Tom, a tributary of the Ob River. (Bohmer 1995, 2)
The earliest reactors to be commissioned had open cooling systems. Water from the nearby Chernilshikov River was pumped in to cool the reactors and the subsequent irradiated water was discharged back into the river.
The Chernilshikov is a tributary of the Tom River. In 1990 members of the Natural Resource Defense Council conducted tests that reveal the effects of the open cooling system.
At the juncture of the Chernilshikov and Tom Rivers, air samples had readings of 300 millirads (urad) per hour and water samples measured 400 urad per hour. Near the village of Chernilshikov, situated on the right bank of the Tom, measurements of 3,100 becequerels (Bq) per meter2 of Plutonium 239 were taken by the group. (Bohmer 1995, 8)
There is a vast amount of waste stored at the facility from its four decades of operations. In addition, base security has become lax, and the facilities are deteriorating. There are separate storage sites for liquid and solid radioactive waste. Liquid waste is stored in reservoirs B1 and B2. It is believed that the two reservoirs are holding almost 300,000 meters3 of waste containing more than 126 megacuries (Mci) of radiation. These pools are uncovered and radiation has been detected in local moose and fauna. Wind storms are known to occur in the region, thus spreading of radioactive sediments may have occurred and could continue to do so in the future. Attempts would be made to fill the reservoirs in the early 1990s. (Bohmer 1995, 5)
Solid waste is also stored at SCC. There is believed to be 127,000 tons of waste in above and underground facilities. The above ground facility is in a state of deterioration. Waste is put in the facility through a series of roof hatches where cracks are beginning to form. Measurements have been taken of these cracks and they are emitting 5.6 rem per hour. (Bohmer 1995, 7)
The most serious source of stored waste at SCC is liquid waste stored in a series of wells at the complex. Russia chose the wells because of the trouble they had experienced with above ground storage sites in the 1950s, especially at the Mayak Chemical Combine.
In 1993 Russian scientists admitted that at least half of all the waste produced by the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War was buried at three locations : Dimitrovgrad near the Volga River ; Krasnoyarsk near the Yenisei River ; and at SCC near Tomsk and the Ob River. The combined radiation held in the three sets of wells is believed to be almost 3 billion curies. In comparison, Chernobyl released 50 million curies, mostly of the short life variety. (Broad 1994, A1)
Underground well storage goes against the established international norm. The United States, and most other nuclear nations, use above ground storage in steel waste tanks. There have been 2 attempts at below ground storage in the US, at Hanford Reservation in the state of Washington and at Oak Ridge Tennessee. Both attempts were canceled due to environmental concern for potential leaks in the storage sites. SCC is already believed to be contaminating the surrounding Tomsk Oblast region.
A Tomsk based environmental group has detected cracks in the wells and the clay and sandstone put in place to prevent seepage to the surrounding ground and water systems. Since these fault lines were discovered the radioactive isotope cesium137 in drinking water in some regions of Tomsk. (Shapiro 1994, A47)
As with most facilities of the Soviet/Russian nuclear industry, SCC has seen its share of nuclear accidents. There have been 23 known incidents at the complex since 1961. The earliest and one of the more significant was a condenser explosion in 1961 where there were two confirmed deaths. There have also been a number of spontaneous chain reactions in the SCC reactors.
(Zakharov 1995, 14) There have not been any accidents on the scale of the Chernobyl explosion. However, much like the Mayak Chemical Combine in Chelyabinsk, the cumulative effects of intentional and accidental releases of radiation and stored radioactive waste throughout SCC and Russia, are enough to make Chernobyl pale in comparison.
The problems at SCC again are reminiscent of other nuclear cities in the Soviet Union. In 1960, SCC produced 90 kilograms more plutonium 239 then was indicated on its records. As such, management was forced to cover up the discrepancy. In 1967 it decided to take surplus plutonium out of storage and have it reprocessed. Therefore, between 50-60kg of plutonium was transferred out as waste and discharged into the uncovered reservoirs. The missing plutonium was never found. (Bohmer 1995, 9) One of the more recent accidents at Tomsk-7 reveal a good deal about the current state of the Russian nuclear program.
On 6 April 1993 a tank containing an industrial solution of paraffin and tributyl phosphate used to decontaminate decommissioned nuclear reactors exploded. The tank was located in the SCC chemical separation plant, known as Object 15. It had a volume of 34.1 meters3 and was holding a 25 meter3 solution containing approximately 8,773 kilograms of uranium and 310 kilograms of plutonium. The radiation in the solution was determined to be 559.3 Ci. (Bohmer 1995, 9) The explosion may have occurred in a Uranium enrichment process for a foreign company.
The French firm COGEMA has a ten year contract with SCC to reprocess and enrich uranium. The French government will not allow domestic companies to conduct these activities due to the potential dangers such as this explosion. (Illesh 1993b, 30)
The explosion is believed to have occurred due to worker negligence. The time period for the particular operation was cut short by an employee. Gas formed in the container and increased pressure on the hermetically sealed tank. In addition, a pressure valve was not fully opened allowing the already growing pressure to reach a level of 17 atmospheres. The tank was built to withstand a pressure of 12 atmospheres. (Chernykh 1993, 20)
The resulting explosion was strong enough to knock down walls on two floors of the complex and caused a fire on the roof. (Rossiiskiye Vesti 8 April 1993, 1) It is believed that 115 Ci of radiation was dispersed over a 120 kilometer2 region. In the most severely irradiated locations, gamma radiation is 20 times normal rates. The accident was ranked a 4 out of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale(INES). In comparison, Chernobyl ranked 7. (Bohmer 1995, 9)
The 1993 explosion was unique in that the Russian Government informed the general public of the accident. Within 4 hours of the explosion, city and province radio had notified the local populace.
However, information was still not being freely given by the SCC or the government. There appears to be discrepancies in the information being given about the accident. The SCC management assured the public that the accident was not serious and that radiation was not above maximum allowable levels. Yet many studies reflect high levels of radiation. One environmental group, Greenpeace, states that SCC and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy are mitigating the radiation levels so as to not lose support from the government or possible contracts with foreign nations.
To further confirm the Greenpeace allegations is the apparent political confrontations within the government itself. After the Tomsk-7 explosion, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree to ensure the safety of all nuclear power facilities and the nuclear weapons complex. Yet there is evidence that the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Atomic Energy(Minatom) has prevented specialists from investigating their various facilities. An example is that Minatom argues that only 5% of the solution in the tank was released while the Committee for the Supervision of Atomic Power safety inspected the tank and believes that at least 50% of the solution escaped in the explosion. (Illesh 1993a, 27)
After this political conflict occurred, the Tomsk-7 explosion was ranked a 4 on the INES. Thus, it is likely that the explosion released more radiation than the SCC and certain government ministries want to admit. In fact, a 1995 study conducted by the Siberian Medical University with specialists from Moscow, St.Petersburg, Kiev, England, the Netherlands, Austria and Hungary, found medical results indicating high levels of radiation.
In two districts of the proposed fall out area, there were higher incidents of many diseases, especially Cancer. In particular, children exhibited diminished endurance and low manual strength and memory. These are similar to what happened to children in 1963-64 after another nuclear accident at SCC. Finally, it was determined that the areas with highest incidents of medical abnormalities match the wind patterns that came from the SCC. (Zakharov 1995, 15)
The consequences of the Tomsk-7 accident and the situation at SCC are many. It is of grave importance to the rest of the world that Russia deal with its environmental problems. It is unclear exactly how many nuclear юcitiesю that the Soviet Union operated. This in and of itself is enough to cause worry because it implies that Russia is still holding on to the cult of nuclear secrecy in the post Cold War.
Second, what is understood by the rest of the world is that Russia is likely to be the most polluted place on Earth. A great majority of this pollution comes from a nuclear industry fraught with inadequate understanding of, let alone care for the environment. The Soviets felt that nature was to be used according to peoples needs, thus they felt that purposeful misuse was acceptable.
However, what was not realized is that the cumulative affect may be enough to destroy the entire nation. A prime example is that over three quarters of Russian lakes and rivers are so contaminated that they cannot be used as drinking water. (Yablokov 1993, 579)
The 1993 explosion at the SCC also should be noted for the governmentюs reactions. The accident was reported to the public, as opposed to the accidents during the Soviet and early post-Soviet years. However, there is still conflict over the specific causes and results. The SCC and the nuclear industry wanted to keep the specific facts of the explosion secret. (Zakharov 1995, 14) While informing the general public of the accident is good, there is still a great deal of secrecy involving the rest of the civil/military nuclear industrial complex.
There are many examples of nuclear accidents that until very recently were still guarded secrets of the Russian government such as those at Chelyabinsk and Krasnoyarsk. According to international rules, the plant should be shut down until exact reasons could be determined for the explosion. The SCC was allowed to continue operating. Thus, it is possible that proper studies have not been conducted to determine the safety of the nuclear industrial complex.
This point leads to one final, yet major problem. In this transition period, Russia is in desperate need of currency. As such it continues to involve itself with contracts to handle foreign nuclear waste such as SCC was doing for the French firm COGEMA. Russia also wants to sell nuclear technology to foreign nations, specifically North Korea and Iran.
There is also the lax security that can and has lead to weapons grade material smuggling. If this continues to be the case, than this accident shows that Russia should be stopped before the rest of the world will be made to suffer. As it now stands, the environmental problem is too large to be contained just in Russia, however, if something is not done than the problem will extend from Russia to the rest of the world.